You Don’t Have to Be Special to Be Great, But You Do Have to Work at It

Excellence is primarily born not of innate ability, but of deliberate practice.

Excellence is primarily born not of innate ability, but of deliberate practice. (Photo: Kimberly Richards/Unsplash)

“Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.” — Frederick Douglass

We all want to be excellent at what we do, but how does talent actually work? Are some people just “born with it,” or can anyone achieve personal greatness?

The science of skill acquisition has been the focus of a number of recent studies and books. As it turns out, we are born with very few, if any, natural talents and skills. Excellence is primarily born not of innate ability, but of deliberate practice.

In other words, you can be good at whatever you want…within reason.Whatever you want — there lies the rub.

How do you know? Where are you supposed to focus? What if you don’t even know what you’re passionate about? This is where the search for greatness gets complicated.

So what do you do?

I struggled with this for a long time. In fact, it took me chasing one career to realize I was really meant to do another. And through the process, I learned three important lessons.

1. Greatness Requires a Challenging Environment

In high school, I picked up playing the guitar.

My dad taught me, so it was a natural progression from father to son, and after learning tablature (an easier way to read and play music for guitarists), I started learning songs I’d always wanted to play.

After six years of practice, I was pretty good. But I had hit a plateau of talent, one I knew I couldn’t exceed. My abilities extended to being able to play all the major chords, barre chords, and a few simple licks. That was about it. No soloing, improvising, or anything too advanced. I was stuck.

Frankly, I was comfortable with that level of talent. Why did I need to get any better? For six years, I stayed at about the same level of proficiency — until I started touring.

After college, I traveled with a band for a year, playing at least one, if not a few, shows per day. In what little spare time we had, I practiced playing guitar.

As a result of being onstage every day for the greater part of a year, I got better. Not just a little better. I was a different guitarist. By the end of the year, I could do things on the guitar I never imagined were possible.

Thinking my talent had a limit, that I was born to only achieve a certain level of skill, I had grown comfortable with what seemed a reasonable amount of talent. I thought I couldn’t get much better, that there was no way I could be as good as any of my guitar-playing heroes or more talented friends.

I was wrong.

2. Greatness Requires Intrinsic Motivation

By the age of twenty-three, I was now the best I had ever been at guitar and finally believed I could be as good at it as I wanted. There was just one problem: I no longer wanted it.

In all my reading and research, I’ve never found anyone to answer this question: If it’s possible for anyone to acquire any skill, why don’t more people do it?

Why don’t they get good at things they’ve always wanted to do, like cooking or sports or playing the piano?

The first answer, of course, is that it’s difficult, much harder than people realize, and requires an incredible amount of discipline. It just takes time and effort, which most people don’t have or aren’t willing to give.

But the second answer, the one I don’t hear researchers or psychologists address nearly enough, is one of motivation.

“It starts with a spark,” author Daniel Coyle told me. You see somebody doing something and say to yourself, “That looks fun. I wonder if I could do that?”

And so it begins. Where this comes from is a mystery that escapes the current grasp of science. But make no mistake. You cannot become great without motivation.

That’s the other side of the issue. If I can do anything, what makes me choose one pursuit over another? It has to come down to desire, to passion, to what truly motivates you.

Otherwise, you will eventually lose interest and never master a skill.

3. Greatness Requires Self-awareness

For me, I realized playing guitar wasn’t something I wanted to fully dedicate myself to. It was a hobby. To treat it as anything other than that was to misplace my passion and disregard what my life was trying to tell me in those quieter moments of reflection.

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am,” wrote Parker Palmer.

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

Finding your own personal is not just about being good at something. It’s about being good at the right thing. To paraphrase Trappist monk Thomas Merton: many of us will spend our lives climbing the ladder of success only to realize it was leaning up against the wrong wall.

So be careful what you choose to excel at. There’s a lot riding on this. That’s why over a decade ago, I quit chasing music and started writing.

In my mid-twenties, I felt an “itch” in my soul that I couldn’t quit scratch. So I began reflecting — listening to my life, as it were. And a I looked back on my story, on two decades dedicated to words and the craft of writing, I realized my calling was to be a writer. And in some ways, music was a shadow of that career to come.

Finding Your Sweet Spot

It turns our greatness is not enough. “Your calling,” Frederick Buechner famously wrote, “is the place where your deepest joy meets the world’s deepest need.”

Your calling is he place where your deepest joy meets the world’s deepest need.

That’s what personal greatness looks like: finding what the world needs and what makes you come alive and combining them. That’s your sweet spot.

Recently, I spoke with a group of high school seniors and shared with them some of my thoughts about what it takes to succeed in the world and how to find that thing you were meant to do.

In a nutshell, what I told them was this:

  1. Find something you love. Ideally, surround yourself with others who share your passion. Your environment matters.
  2. Do it until you can become good, hopefully even great, at it. And don’t worry if you’re not that good yet. This is what practice is for. But make sure this is something you are motivated to do even when you are bad at it.
  3. Share your gift in a way that helps other people. If you do this, you actually can get paid to do what you love. Otherwise, it will only ever be a hobby.

But all that begins with discarding this unhelpful idea that “some people are born with it.” It’s just not true. Certainly, there may be some amount of natural talent for some abilities. But as Geoff Colvin pointed out in his bookTalent Is Overrated, if talent does exist, it doesn’t really matter. In an article for Fortune, he wrote:

Talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.

Because the truth is just about anyone can get better at just about anything. So the real question is if you spend thousands of hours and something like a decade practicing your craft, will it be worth it?

Yes, you can be good at nearly anything. Which should cause us to be careful with where we focus our attention and our practice. That last thing you want is to climb a ladder in life, only to realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.

Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville, Tenn., with his family. He is the author of the national best seller The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffGoins. To get more articles like this, check out his free newsletter. As a thank-you, he’ll send you a free excerpt of my best-selling book, The Art of Work, plus other fun things. You Don’t Have to Be Special to Be Great, But You Do Have to Work at It